God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

pensée of a Catholic priest

Unstained by real life

Stefan Hippler

Unstained by real life  –  Why good intentions often fail in the face of African realities

We are celebrating Mass at Kolbe House, the University of Cape Town’s Catholic chaplaincy. This Sunday we Catholics recall Mary’s Immaculate Conception. It is a real challenge to explain this theme to students. A stainless conception – how is that supposed to work? What is that priest talking about? Related questions come up during a small workshop after the Mass. Of all days, it is on the feast day of the Virgin Mary that we are scheduled to discuss HIV/Aids and sexuality. I notice a poster on the wall. The poster, which bears the logo of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), was developed in cooperation with the Association of Catholic Tertiary Students. Beneath the image of a black cross with a red Aids ribbon is the slogan, “ABCD Lifestyle campaign: Catholic youth responds to Christ’s call”.

The acronym is an allusion to the ABC strategy which is being used around the world to promote HIV/Aids prevention, but which is also controversial because it neglects women and girls. As explained earlier, it stands for “abstain”, “be faithful”, and “condomise”. The students’ association’s approach to the first two points is identical, but it takes the opposite direction on the third recommendation and adds a fourth one. On the poster, C stands for “Change your lifestyle”, and D issues a warning: “Danger of not living your life to the fullest”.

So the students are called to chastity, asked to resist not just the enticements of Eros but also a series of other temptations. The content of that series of temptations takes me by surprise: crime, corruption, drug use, pollution and vandalism. I’m puzzled as to how sexuality and criminality can be linked in one breath. Even the reference to fidelity leaves a strange taste in the mouth. The young person is being challenged to be faithful to their bodies, families, friends and parish, but concepts such as girlfriends or boyfriends, life partners, wife or husband are not mentioned. And then C and D: change your lifestyle or you’ll risk not being able to live your life “to the fullest”, in line with the Gospel of St John (10:10). Because one might be a criminal. Or a drug addict. Or a litter bug. Or because you could be infected with HIV.

That is quite something from a Catholic organisation. How exactly do we know that a person with HIV cannot live her life “to the fullest”? Isn’t that a rather audacious presumption which contradicts our faith that for God nothing is impossible?

So we go through the poster, point by point, and I ask the students for their comments. Most of them contemplate the content of the poster for the very first time. They respond, hesitantly and cautiously – they are not used to discussing such things with a priest. He might be very nice, but he is still a representative of the institutional Church. Gradually the unease lifts, and it turns out that nobody here likes the link between sexuality and crime. And they are all reflecting on why a person with HIV should not be able to live a full life. Because they die so quickly, says a student. And because they can’t have children, adds another. Conclusion: the Church tries to give guidance but causes confusion.

I take this bizarre poster to the next meeting of the archdiocese of Cape Town’s Catholic Aids Network, and vent my anger. That sparks an exciting debate. What should all the children born with HIV think of being placed on the same level as criminal offenders? What are they supposed to think of being prophesied an unsatisfying life because they cannot live it “to the fullest”? Our meeting spontaneously resolves to write two letters. The first will be addressed to Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, at the time the bishop conference’s president. We want to know from him whether the content of the ABCD poster was ever collegial passed in line with the conference’s principle of consensus – after all, it bears the SACBC logo. The second letter will be sent to the priest who is responsible for the students’ association’s poster, asking him to clarify the meaning and purpose of this campaign.

It takes weeks before we receive a reply. The first comes from the cardinal. He explains that he is not responsible for the poster and never actually saw it in detail. Just how the SACBC logo found its way on to the poster will remain a mystery. Cardinal Napier suggests that we ask the originators directly. But that turns out to be not that simple. The priest at first doesn’t respond. When, after further approaches, he does, his answers are as vague as we had feared. Nobody is really accountable for it, we learn. And what these posters communicate to people with HIV, well, nobody really thought about it. Should I be angry? Or should I console myself with the idea that sometimes such things are just “typically Catholic”?

But considering that most Aids education campaigns fail or are misdirected, just how are we going to reach the youth? What can we do to stifle the rate of new infections? What kind of strategy is the Catholic Church in South Africa developing for the next five years? First we cared for Aids orphans. Then we opened clinics and hospices. Now we are concentrating on the distribution of medicines. But what are we going to do next? We haven’t arrived at a satisfactory answer yet.

But let’s look at that poster again. It recommends that black students should develop their conscience and live their culture. But we haven’t even started to understand African culture, and often know nothing about it. I’ll try to demonstrate this with three examples.

Among traditional Xhosas, one of the dominant nations in South Africa, it is quite common that a man will take four wives. So if he “lives his culture”, he breaches the Christian requirement for monogamy. But his aim is to produce many descendants, because not only does that ensure the survival of his clan, but also that he will be cared for in old age. I began to understand that principle through the experiences of an employee of HOPE Cape Town. She was about to become the second wife of a man, and was already pregnant with his child. But her future husband died shortly before the wedding. When I asked how her family was coping with these circumstances, her answer astonished me. The most important thing, she said, is that he now has a descendant. Her parents had already been concerned that at her advanced age she had still been without child.

The second example concerns sexuality. Those who live their African culture categorically don’t speak about it, and even less so about Aids. Even Nelson Mandela, the brave freedom fighter and South Africa’s first black president, would refer to it only marginally. Once, after his retirement, he pointed out that for men of his standing, brought up according to traditional values, speaking about sexuality isn’t easy. For a true African it is non-negotiable that body fluids will have to be emitted during sexual intercourse, and the use of a condom would preclude that. And many African cultures maintain the custom of dry sex. Men don’t want the woman’s vagina to be moist during intercourse because that supposedly enhances the experience. But it also significantly increases the risk of HIV infection.

The third example concerns illness and healing. A complex universe of gods, ghosts and ancestors still form the mind of many Africans. The ancestors exercise a strong influence on daily life – they protect or curse and reward or punish their descendants. And because every illness is a sign or call from an ancestor, the living individual is not responsible for it. The healing is the sangoma’s job. The traditional healer has the secret wisdom and knows the rituals to beat the sickness. His patients will consider themselves healed as soon as the symptoms of the ailment disappear. In terms of the asymptomatic phase of HIV, during which the immediate effects of the infection soon disappear, this philosophy can have fatal consequences.

One could raise more examples. I mentioned just three to demonstrate that the advice to live one’s African culture is just thoughtless. And that’s how many suggestions on the ABCD poster seem: thoughtless. Unstained by reality. But reality demands that we face different challenges if we want to fight the virus effectively. The African relationship to sexuality, to gender roles, to death, to traditions must be modified; African men must change. Africa needs a mental revolution.  And the church must learn, that universal and unique moral teaching might mean trouble for specific regions.

The Poster: ABCD

Translation from:
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Hardcover: 207 pages  –  Publisher: Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH (August 31, 2007)
Language: German  –  ISBN-10: 3462039253  –  ISBN-13: 978-3462039252
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Paperback  – Bastei – Luebbe  –
Language: German  –  ISBN-10: 3404606159  –  ISBN-13: 978-3404606153

Filed under: General, HIV and AIDS, HIV Prevention, HIV Treatment, HOPE Cape Town Association & Trust, HOPE Cape Town Trust, Medical and Research, Networking, Politics and Society, Reflection, Society and living environment, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

HIV, AIDS and HOPE – thoughts of a Catholic priest

Being a Roman - Catholic priest and working in the fields of HIV and AIDS in Africa is often a challenge. Living in Africa has also its challenges. On the other hand I feel very much blessed having all the three. So you will find stories and reflections about my work, about the church, South Africa and Africa and essential information and developments in the field of HIV and AIDS. And in between personal stories and thoughts. You are most welcome to leave a comment or to get in touch with me - blogs - "thinking loud" so to speak is a ways of communication and exchange of ideas.

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